Who was Ashoka?

Upset with his violent conquests that killed hundreds of thousands, the Indian king Ashoka embraced Buddhism and treated his subjects humanely.

Illustration courtesy Private Collection/Dinodia/Bridgeman Images
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Emperor Ashoka is credited with remaking the Mauyran Dynasty from a war machine into a society of tolerance and nonviolence, based on Buddhism.
Illustration courtesy Private Collection/Dinodia/Bridgeman Images

Who was Ashoka?

Upset with his violent conquests that killed hundreds of thousands, the Indian king Ashoka embraced Buddhism and treated his subjects humanely.

Chandragupta Maurya’s grandson Ashoka (Aśoka) (ca 304–233 B.C.) took the Mauryan Empire to its greatest geographical extent and its full height of power. Yet his remarkable transformation of the kingdom came not through the intense violence that marked his early reign. Instead, it resulted from his embrace of Buddhism and the messages of tolerance and nonviolence that he spread throughout the sprawling empire.

Eight years after seizing power around 270 B.C., Ashoka led a military campaign to conquer Kalinga, a coastal kingdom in east-central India. The victory left him with a larger domain than that of any of his predecessors. Accounts claim between 100,000 and 300,000 lives were lost during the conquest.

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This Buddhist temple was built by the Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, India.

That human toll took a tremendous emotional toll on Ashoka. He wrote that he was “deeply pained by the killing, dying, and deportation that take place when an unconquered country is conquered.” Thereafter, Ashoka renounced military conquest and other forms of violence, including cruelty to animals. He became a patron of Buddhism, supporting the rise of the doctrine across India. He reportedly dispatched emissaries to several countries, including Syria and Greece, and he sent his own children as missionaries to Sri Lanka.

Ashoka shared his new outlook on life through edicts carved into stones and pillars located around the country at pilgrimage sites and along busy trade routes. The edicts are considered among the first examples of writing in Indian history. They were not carved in Sanskrit—the official state language—but in local dialects, so that the messages could be widely understood. For example, an edict near modern-day Kandahar in Afghanistan, an area that had been under Alexander the Great’s control for a period of time, is written in Greek and Aramaic.

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Much like Cyrus in Persia, Ashoka adopted and promoted a policy of respect and tolerance for people of different faiths. One edict declared, “All men are my children. As for my own children, I desire that they may be provided with all the welfare and happiness of this world and of the next, so do I desire for all men as well.”

Other edicts exhorted citizens to generosity, piety, justice, and mercy. Ashoka and his high ministers took occasional tours through the kingdom to check on the welfare of the people and see how his edicts were being fulfilled. According to one pillar, the ministers provided medicine and hospitals for both men and animals.

Tending to earthly needs

In addition to his edicts, Ashoka built stupas, monasteries, and other religious structures at noteworthy Buddhist sites, such as Sarnath. He was not an unworldly ruler, however. He efficiently managed a centralized government from the Mauryan capital at Pataliputra. A large bureaucracy collected taxes. Inspectors reported back to the emperor. Irrigation expanded agriculture. Familiar hallmarks of ancient empires, excellent roads were built connecting key trading and political centers; Ashoka ordered that the roads have shade trees, wells, and inns.

After his death, Ashoka’s merciful style of governance waned along with the Mauryan Empire itself. His reign slipped into the realm of legend, until archaeologists translated his edicts two millennia later. In their time, those edicts helped unify a vast empire through their shared messages of virtue, and they propelled the expansion of Buddhism throughout India.

This text is an excerpt from the National Geographic special issue The Most Influential Figures of Ancient History.